Mourning the Loss of Sonic Boom

By: Michelle Guthrie

It’s funny how you don’t know it’s the last time – even when you’re leaving.

As I sat in the back seat of my friend’s car, I was drenched, cold, and content after seeing The Lumineers. I had no idea that this would be my last Sonic Boom ever.

The festival, hosted by local alternative rock station SONiC 102.9, started in 2009. It was a chance for Edmonton alternative music fans to finally experience the bands they’d heard on the radio live, and in person, which added a whole new dimension to the music that listeners loved.

I didn’t hear about it until a friend invited me in 2013, when punk rockers Blink-182 and acoustic dream City and Colour were headlining. Back then, I was just on the cusp of falling in love with live music. I didn’t go to many music festivals or concerts as much as I do now, but going to Sonic Boom that year absolutely changed my life.

It opened a lot of doors to bands that I had neither heard of, nor seen live. That was the first time I saw bands like USS, where DJ Human Kebab crowd surfed with a fan. They shook hands while suspended in the air, held up by fans.

That was around the same time that I learned I didn’t like moshing.

The bad times were the sunburns on my chest and the Sheepdogs crowd, where we were packed in tight in the August heat. One guy butted his way through, yelling that he was a camera man for MuchMusic (but was really just a delusional drunk with an iPhone and a selfie stick). But even during the challenging times, I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

My first Boom comes back to me in brief flashes. Mother Mother played that year, and now every time I hear “Simply Simple,” I remember my friends and I standing in the boiling August heat in the middle of a giant pit. We belted out the words like our lives depended on it, and through the sunburns and bruises, everything felt alright.

Then came 2014, which is considered the best year of the festival for a lot of people – including me. Not only was the lineup as strong as ever, but the experiences I had with my friends and the live music were the most visceral and intimate.

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Arctic Monkeys performing at Sonic Boom 2014. Photo: Michelle Guthrie

That year, the festival ran for three consecutive days, and had headliners Rise Against, Jack White, and Arctic Monkeys. Some friends and I managed to nab VIP passes, and we geared up for one of the biggest years of Sonic Boom yet.

On Saturday, I got to experience the electric energy of Fitz and the Tantrums, and world-renowned indie rock band Arctic Monkeys for the first time. Sunday was an absolutely fitting day for the mellow sounds of Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie.  I still remember when Weezer had the stage and my friends and I yelled the lyrics to “Buddy Holly.”

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Death Cab for Cutie performing at Sonic Boom 2014. Photo: Michelle Guthrie

There was so much to do, see, and eat. Everywhere I turned, the festival seemed to be thriving. People heading to the pit, or chilling with a beer in the gardens, or just walking around and generally having a good time. It was a festival where a lot of people came together to experience live music in the most beautiful ways I have ever seen – and it was the best Boom I had ever been to.

Then 2015 rolled in.

The lineup was not as stellar as previous years, and people were angry. I still went anyway because I liked some of the artists who were coming like Hozier and Brandon Flowers. It was a weird mix of headliners, featuring melodic hardcore band Alexisonfire and pop star Ellie Goulding.

Everything felt different that year. I felt it when prices started rising, and suddenly my friends didn’t want to go anymore. SONiC gave every one of their listeners free tickets when the festival arrived, supposedly because they didn’t sell as much as previous years. Even waking up that day didn’t feel as bright and promising as in years past.

And boy, did it ever rain. It was the first year that the festival moved from the parking lot of Northlands to scenic Borden Park, and things couldn’t have been any bleaker. The artists still gave it their all, despite the relentless weather. It was actually quite fitting for Hozier’s set, with his soulful and bluesy sound.

As a pleasant surprise, I got to hear the iconic Killers’ single “Mr. Brightside” from Brandon Flowers.

The crowds also didn’t feel as encasing. I could comfortably move around in the pit, except of course when Mother Mother took the stage. Twice now, that band has been a festival highlight for me. That year, standing in the crowd and packed in like a cold sardine, I remember turning to total strangers, laughing and belting out songs from their latest album, Very Good Bad Thing. I felt like this moment, and this band, firmly represented what it was like to truly feel at home.

In many ways, that should have been the last of Sonic Boom, but it wasn’t. Ironically, the end would come the following year, when the festival was beginning to regain its pulse.

2016 came, and the announcement was late. By May, we knew the headliners that year would be Twenty One Pilots, one of the biggest alternative bands in the world, and also The Lumineers, who had never before played Edmonton. It also included some of my favourite live artists like July Talk and Arkells. This lineup was a dream come true for me, but for many Boom-goers, it was as bad as the previous year.

I was on the barricade for the first day, and I got to experience an entire day’s worth of bands from the front row – including Halsey and July Talk. The Naked and Famous played their first Edmonton show, proving that their electronic pop sound gave them an outstanding and full-bodied live presence.

Twenty One Pilots blew the festival out of the water. At one point, lead musician Tyler Joseph climbed the gigantic sound booth in the middle of the crowd during their sobering “Car Radio,” and  later rode a giant red hamster ball during “Ride.”

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Twenty One Pilots performing at Sonic Boom 2016. Photo: Michelle Guthrie

Sunday came, and I got to see mellower bands like Banners, Vance Joy, and finally The Lumineers. I’m glad I got to stand in the crowd for the very last headliner of Sonic Boom, even if I didn’t know it at that time. In subtle ways, that nostalgic feeling of the end hung in the air.

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The Lumineers, performing at their last Sonic Boom in 2016. Photo: Michelle Guthrie

It may have just been another music festival to a lot of people, but it meant the world to me. Every year was another Boom to look forward to. Every year was that routine four to five month anticipation for lineup announcements, and then another four months of eagerly waiting for the actual festival.

Edmonton is often snubbed when it comes to major musicians, and Sonic Boom was always a chance for those artists to actually make a stop here. Not only did it attract major musicians, it gave smaller local artists a chance to showcase their music in a major festival setting. Small bands like Rend, Family of the Year, and Mounties got their chance to shine over these past three years.

The loss of Sonic Boom has deeply affected alternative rock fans like me. Maybe other festivals will step in to fill in the gap that Sonic Boom has left. It might come back in a few years. SONiC only said there would not be one this year, but it’s hard to tell at this point. All we can do is mourn the loss of such a monumental festival and continue to support the live music we are given.

(Feature Image by: SONiC 102.9)

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